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21 April 2010


Matins: What it means to be Jewish — to Tony Judt, a decidedly non-observant non-supporter of Israel. (NYRB)

Unlike my table companion, I don’t expect Hitler to return. And I refuse to remember his crimes as an occasion to close off conversation: to repackage Jewishness as a defensive indifference to doubt or self-criticism and a retreat into self-pity. I choose to invoke a Jewish past that is impervious to orthodoxy: that opens conversations rather than closes them. Judaism for me is a sensibility of collective self-questioning and uncomfortable truth-telling: the dafka-like quality of awkwardness and dissent for which we were once known. It is not enough to stand at a tangent to other peoples’ conventions; we should also be the most unforgiving critics of our own. I feel a debt of responsibility to this past. It is why I am Jewish.

Lauds: From the Arts Journal, two pleasant bits of news about painters and paintings. First, the view from Edward Hopper's Cape Cod studio will be preserved, undefiled by a McMansion. Second, Picasso's The Actor is back on the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The canvas was accidentally torn in January, and conservator Lucy Belloli talked to the Times about her remedial work.

Restoration involved a slow and careful realignment of the painting, and that meant time. So for six weeks “The Actor” lay face down, with varying weights on it to counteract the “memory” of the damage. First, Ms. Belloli said, she placed small silk sand bags that she made herself on the affected area; then slightly heavier ones, the kind seamstresses use to hold a pattern in place; and gradually heavier and heavier weights, stopping at one pound. Once the canvas seemed stabilized, she placed a clear Mylar patch on the back. “We didn’t want to hide any part of the other painting,” Ms. Belloli said.

Some careful retouching was ultimately required, especially where paint had flecked off around the tear. Ms. Belloli used three layers: a synthetic gesso over which she applied gouache and finally a pigment-and-synthetic resin that resembles the original oil paint.

“As it ages it will inevitably look different,” she said of her handiwork. And unlike the early-20th-century oils, the pigment-and-synthetic resin can be easily removed and freshly retouched when necessary. “Everything changes in time,” Ms. Belloli said. “And this way it will be easy to fix.”

Prime: Although very complicated, Felix Salmon's comparison of the Goldman Sachs Abacus deal (which prompted the SEC to launch criminal proceedings) and the Magnetar Auriga deal is well worth trying to grasp. It is very likely that a new — or newly clear — understand of market fraud is going to emerge from the Goldman Sachs case.

More generally, the Goldman defense — which is as sophisticated and well-argued as you’d expect from bankers and lawyers of this caliber — seems to be that ACA was an enormous asset manager which neither knew nor cared about a small fund manager like John Paulson. If they thought about his positioning at all, they would probably have come to the conclusion that he was short, and if they came to that conclusion it wouldn’t have stopped them going forwards with the deal, because they considered themselves to be highly sophisticated when it came to putting together CDOs.

It’s a reasonably strong argument, but it fails utterly to answer the question of why on earth, in that case, Paulson’s role wasn’t disclosed much more transparently. The whole deal came out of a reverse enquiry from Paulson to Goldman: why couldn’t Goldman, bringing ACA into the loop, explain the whole concept in the space of a couple of minutes? Why all the studied ambiguity about equity tranches and sponsorships? Why not just come out and say that Paulson wasn’t taking an equity slice, and was going to be short the entire structure?

Tierce: It turns out that the ban on flying through the residue of volcanic activity is blunt and quite unscientific. (NewScientist)

But although it is certain that volcanic ash like that hanging over northern Europe can melt inside a jet engine and block airflow, nobody has the least idea about just how much is too much. After a week of losing millions every day, airlines are starting to ask why we can't do better.

It need not be this way, concedes Jonathan Nicholson at the UK's aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority. "There may be a non-zero safe ash level for commercial jets, of so many particles of a certain size per minute," he told New Scientist, "but we just don't know."

Denis Chagnon, spokesman for the ICAO, agrees, but says that isn't regulators' fault. "This has to be established by the engine makers themselves, because they produce the affected equipment. And that has not been done," he says.

Two of the biggest aero engine makers – Rolls-Royce in the UK and General Electric in the US – did not return phone calls or emails asking for comment on if, how and when they plan to establish safe thresholds. When the ash settles, it seems likely that they will be asked to think seriously about doing so.

We imagine that the engine manufacturers are not keen to "establish safe thresholds." Sounds like insurance to us.

Sext: The Awl celebrates its first birthday!

DC: Fun fact about Korean births, my dad's father cut the umbilical cords of all seven of his children with his teeth
DC: So they're kind of a kooky people
MHKC: Are you serious?
DC: Yeah
MHKC: Because that isn't kooky
MHKC: That's full on demented
MHKC: Also that you know this and are all “la di da” is berserk

Nones: Arguing that Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg comes off as less posh than Conservative David Cameron, Sholto Byrnes makes disparaging remarks about Euro headquarters in Brussels ("deeply dull-sounding"). At A Fistful of Euros, Jamie Kenny rebuts. ("It was more fun that that.")

Thing is, they stack MEPs offices by party in Brussels, or used to. All the conservative parties were based on the first two floors. The European socialists were above them, and above them was where the fun started. 

My MEP’s office was directly beneath the Abode of the Liberals, and sometimes you couldn’t hear yourself think. There’d be shouting and odd cries and people running up and down corridors and the sound of heavy things being dragged to and fro. This would go on all day. I poked my head round the door once when I got the wrong floor on the lift and there were three men standing in a corridor staring intently into an open briefcase. One of them turned round, bared his teeth and hissed at me. The fascists used to complain about them. 

Vespers: Marion Maneker is quite unimpressed by the clout that independent booksellers claim to have brought to bear in advancing Paul Harding's Tinkers to Pulitzer Prize-winning status. (Slate/Big Money; via The Millions)

Tinkers may come to occupy an important place in our literary culture in years to come. But after 16 months in print, it's still struggling to get going—even with a Pulitzer win.

Prior to the Pulitzer announcement, the New York Times tells us, Tinkers had sold a respectable 7,000 copies in paperback. But 7,000 copies over 16 months is not a huge victory for the "literary" literary world and independent bookstores. Instead of relying on the Great Chain of Publishing, the anecdote quoted above shows how Tinker's chain jumped several links to get to the Pulitzer.

Those Amazon numbers also tell a worrying story. Bellevue, the publisher, is not equipped to rush a huge number of copies of the book into print or get them rapidly distributed to stores. The paperback is listed as shipping in three to six weeks from Amazon's warehouses. That means they're waiting for a reprint. We can assume that bookstores were not well-stocked.

The only place one can get an immediate copy of the book is on Kindle. So why is the title so low on the bestseller list? Sure, Kindle sales—especially with all of those free titles—could simply be masking the strong numbers that Tinkers is posting. The differential could also mean that pent-up demand for the paperback is being artificially channeled to Amazon. (It's easier to wait for an order at Amazon than with your local bookstore, where you'll have to make another trip.)

Whatever the fate of Tinkers, the independents haven't succeeded in showing their marketing muscle in this Pulitzer win. That's a shame. For all the faults of the Great Chain of Publishing—namely, its closed, clubby nature—it supported a literary culture and a common context in which the novel could have a powerful social impact that seems to be utterly lacking today.

Compline: Listening to the radio in France, says Richard Goldstein, is a lot more interesting than it is here. To be sure, it wasn't always. (NAJP ARTicles; via Marginal Revolution)

Of course, Paris has been an entrepôt for foreign styles ever since Benjamin Franklin brought his glass harmonica to the royal court. The city's fascination with Asian culture in the 19th Century helped create the consciousness that led to impressionism. Josephine Baker and the Ballet Russe were, in different ways, major sources of French modernism. But no matter which styles the French imported, their own cultural values remained front and center. This Francocentrism persisted well into the 20th Century. Long after rock made it impossible to sing plucky or plangent ballads backed by an accordion, the French were still at it. (Pace Johnny Hallyday.) Until fairly recently there was a state-mandated limit on how many English-language songs could be played on the air. The idea seems ludicrous now. Though people paste stickers reading "en français s.v.p." on English words in subway ads, it's more like a plea than a protest. This season there are several American musicals in town, and no one would think of translating the songs. (Although I've had a rollicking time reading the French titles to "Officer Krupke.")

The point, in case you wondered when I would get to it, is that France has become a center of stylistic blending. They do it so well in part because it resonates with their cultural history, but also because the current wave of immigration from Africa has produced a conflictual combination of obsessive anxiety and fascination. The array of Afro-based music that passes through Parisian recording studios is a mirror of this mutually ambivalent embrace. It's an agglomeration that sounds neither African nor European. It's something new.

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